This well-done historical drama examines the troubling circumstances surround the ascent to the throne of Elizabeth I in 1558. The storyline follows her struggle to establish respect and authority in England during a period of intense religious, political, and economic turmoil. Indian director Shekhar Kapur makes the most of Michael Hirst's riveting screenplay, which is a masterful study of raw power.

In the opening scene, three Protestant heretics are burned at the stake under the order of the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), a zealous Catholic in service to the terminally ill Queen Mary (Kathy Burke), who is loyal to the Pope. When her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) succeeds her, she breaks off all ties with Rome. In a series of dangerous challenges to her credibility, the inexperienced and vulnerable Queen squares off against the duplicity of her long-time lover Lord Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), a military confrontation with the French warrior Queen Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), and several assassination attempts. Although Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) wants her to marry and produce an heir, Elizabeth decides that she wants no man as her master. She finds a staunch ally in the manipulative and murderous Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), who masterminds her entry into power politics and the cult of personality so dominant in twentieth-century leaders.